What is a sonnet?
The sonnet form, most commonly used for love poems, was created in Italy in the 13th century and made popular by Renaissance poets such as Petrarch. The Italian sonnet (also called the Petrarchan sonnet) is made up of 14 lines of iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables in a ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum rhythm). Its argument is in two parts, an octave (eight lines) outlining a problem or question, followed by a sestet (six lines) offering a resolution; the transition between the two at the start of the ninth line is called the volta or ‘turn’. The octave rhymes abba abba, while the sestet can have a looser rhyme scheme, often cde cde or cd cd cd. Some common features of Petrarch’s love sonnets are an exaggerated adoration of the beloved, the use of contrasts and opposites in his imagery, and the idea of the poet being in anguish because his love is not acknowledged or returned.
Although nowadays we think of Shakespeare primarily as a playwright, in his own lifetime he was also well-known as a poet. His sonnets and narrative poems appeared in print to widespread acclaim during the 1590s and 1600s.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote and revised the sonnets during the 1590s and early 1600s. They were first printed in 1609 in a quarto volume – Shakes-Speares Sonnets – containing a sequence of 154 sonnets concluded by a longer poem, A Lover’s Complaint. Although scholars in the past have taken a different view, it is now generally believed that Shakes-Speares Sonnets was published with the consent of the author and with the poems in their proper order, but that the manuscript/s used to set the printed text may not have been authorial or definitive, or may have been difficult to work from.
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